What Israel can Learn from Italy

May 17, 2015

3 min read

Emmanuel Navon

Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to expediently change a basic law for the mere sake of distributing fictitious government jobs is worthy of a banana republic, just as his effort last year to dissolve the presidency because of his dislike for the front runner was an embarrassment (a move I criticized).

In March 2014, the government passed the so-called “governance law” with the declared intention of ending the legendary instability of Israeli politics. The law raised the Knesset eligibility threshold from 2% to 3.25%; it limited the number of government ministers to 18; and it forbade the appointment of ministers without portfolio. At first glance, all three changes are welcome: the Knesset has an unusually high number of small political parties; Israeli governments include unnecessary and almost comical ministries (such as a “Minister for the Negev Desert and for the Galilee” and a “Minister for Senior Citizens”); and ministers without portfolios are a waste of the taxpayer money. Yet the “governance law” made Israel even less governable. This law should be repealed entirely because it is counterproductive, but it should not be partially amended out of political expediency.

As I predicted in a previous article, raising the eligibility threshold has made Israeli politics more unstable still because it reduces the coalition options of prospective prime ministers and because it increases the extortion power of mid-size parties. This was confirmed by the recent elections. Had the threshold been maintained at 2%, Eli Ishay’s Yahad party would have entered the Knesset with three seats, which would have increased Netanyahu’s coalition options and spared him his current razor-thin (and unsustainable) 61-seat majority in the 120-member legislature. Because there are no more “micro-parties” in the Knesset, Netanyahu was left without an alternative after being stabbed in the back by Avigdor Lieberman. And once Netanyahu was hung out to dry, Jewish Home leader Nafatli Bennett was able to extort him.

Higher eligibility thresholds have proven counterproductive is other countries, as well. In Germany, for instance, the eligibility threshold for the Bundestag is 5%. In the 2013 federal elections, the Liberal party did not pass it, leaving Angela Merkel without her natural partner and without a coherent coalition. She had no other choice but to form an unnatural coalition with the Social Democrats.

Reducing the number of ministers has also made matters worse, because in coalition politics the best way to prevent lawmakers from voting against the government is to have them join it. The second Netanyahu government (2009-2013) was stable precisely because it was inflated. Does that mean that inflated governments are a good thing? No, but they are a necessary evil in a dysfunctional political system such as ours. The “governance law” treated the symptom instead of the illness. The illness is called pure proportional representation. Rather than reforming the voting system for the Knesset, the “governance law” took away one of the most efficient ways of circumventing the chronic instability produced by pure proportional representation.

This is not the first time that Israel has conceived an ill-advised reform of its dysfunctional political system. In 1992, the Knesset passed a law that was also meant to provide stability: direct election of the prime minister (like presidential systems), and separate ballots for political parties. With such double voting, people lost the incentive to choose between Labor and Likud because the identity of the future prime minister was no longer determined by the size of his party. As a result, the number of small parties increased, and the directly-elected prime minister had to handle more unruly coalitions than in the past (the law was repealed in 2003).

I am not making the case against reforms, but against bad ones. Israel’s political system is unstable and does need to be fixed, but the right way. Even the chronically unstable Italy finally figured it out.

Italy’s political system was also characterized by a nearly comical political spectacle of musical chairs when its voting system was nearly pure proportional representation between 1946 and 1993. But thanks to the determination of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the Italian parliament just approved a reform that might finally introduce political stability to Italy. In a nutshell, the new law will give a party that wins 40% of the vote bonus seats in order to form a majority of 340 in the 630-seat lower house (if no party hits the target, a run-off will be held between the two biggest ones).

So Italy offers a glimpse of hope, but then again electoral reform requires an ingredient which Israel currently lacks: leadership.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Navon’s Blog

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